People who buy shares in a company just because its share price is already rising are liable to be made fools of. People who puff the future prospects of the United Kingdom Independence party just because those prospects are better now than they were a year ago may be making a similar mistake.
I’ve enjoyed the flutter in Tory, Labour and Liberal Democrat dovecotes provoked by the Ukip fox in last week’s elections. To watch feathers flying among the ranks of our classe politique is always a pleasure, and I happen to think an uncomplicatedly anti-EU party has every right to exist. This one is set to exercise an influence on the course of both Labour and Tory policy towards Europe. But a cool view should be taken of Ukip’s likely progress towards its declared destination: getting into Parliament, and getting out of Europe. There is, however, one issue on which it may find headway still to be made, an issue which should worry Michael Howard more than European integration: to this I shall return in a moment.
To extrapolate towards a general election, Ukip’s soaring graph so far is rather like a motorist’s observing that an average speed of 70 miles per hour has been achieved between Leeds and the outskirts of London, and calculating that on this basis Trafalgar Square will be reached in six minutes. There is, of course, the huge problem of the first-past-the-post system at general elections, but there is a deeper difficulty too, and it is to be found in the question of what Ukip are for. There existed in British politics a modest-sized vacuum for a party pledging to get us out of Europe. Ukip has now filled it; but I am unsure there is houseroom left for much further expansion.
This for three reasons. The principal ingredients of a viable political party are leadership, support and policies. Ukip’s leaders are of distinctly mixed calibre. Its support, though hard at its Europhobe core, is very squishy indeed around the Eurosceptic edges. And its policy on Europe may be unsaleable to much larger numbers than those to whom it has already been sold.
I do not wish to be catty about individuals. I used to know Roger Knapman when he was a Tory. I like his crisp, unsentimental bark and I can imagine him as an effective economic secretary to the Treasury; but he is not an inspirational figure, any more than is Nigel Farage.
I have worked with Robert Kilroy-Silk: as MPs — he Labour, I Tory — we collaborated successfully in a private Members’ measure to abolish the imprisonment of prostitutes. He is fluent, canny and engaging, with a good eye for publicity and a good nose for a popular cause. But, beneath the fluency, the confiding manner and the tan, it is hard to detect in his career any consistent strand of political philosophy. A talent for self-promotion matters in politics, and in Ukip Mr Kilroy-Silk answers a conspicuous need. But is there not something sad in the spectacle of a cheated British electorate, finally despairing of the empty promises of the silver-tongued cads in the big parties — and falling, broken-hearted, into the arms of one of the slickest operators in the business? The lovelorn on the rebound are, as we all know, in an emotionally vulnerable state; voters should not be allowed out unchaperoned with this man. Robert is no rough-hewn, speak-as-I-find alternative to sleek party hucksterism: he is just a very smooth practitioner of the same art.
Ukip have now obliged us to take their leadership seriously, and we shall. As we do, we shall see them tested as individuals, scrutinised and interrogated. After a couple of wild nights last week, the romance may stale.
As to Ukip’s support, we do need to ask whether there remain ‘out there’ many more anti-Europeans looking for a party with which to register their feelings: many more, that is, than supported it last week. True, there will be some whose support was withheld because they felt they could not take the party seriously. Next time they may. But these may be more than matched by those who voted for the party precisely because they did not take this election seriously. When it matters, they will return to their big-party folds.
Policy is going to present Ukip with a big problem. Anger is not a policy. It may sweep the electoral board at moments of high national tension, but between elections, and once the novelty has worn off, we may tire of this gang banging on and on about the evils of Europe. That may be especially true if the EU begins to look less like an overweening, powerful and threatening Continental giant and more like a disorganised and rather pitiful gaggle of big and little countries in search of a common direction — for that, I suspect, is its future.
Ukip will be able to score some easy hits against euro-lunacy, and make the Conservative and Labour parties squirm by pointing to their palpable lack of anything clear and strong — pro or anti — to say about Europe. Michael Howard’s position is not so far from Tony Blair’s: they hedge on Europe. Hedging is not an edifying activity in a leader, and the speech denouncing the villainies of the EU or the speech daring to dream the European dream both trip more easily from the lips than the speech explaining that the EU is an irritating mess with which we British are probably best advised to string along, carping, grumbling and fixing what we can, in a provisional kind of way. Try applauding that.
But it is the truth; and I think the majority of my countrymen know it to be the truth. They may cheer the vilifiers and boo the stringers-along — and then, if the chasm of withdrawal opens up at their feet, turn aside and vote for the stringers-along.
For the last 20 years I have been trying to write the keynote oration which declares that to the ‘Europe: Yes or No?’ question, ‘Er’ is the right answer — and declares it in a stirring way. I have almost given up the attempt. Perhaps it cannot be done. Yet, underneath, Britain half senses as much. ‘Europe! String along with it! For the time being!’ that is my proud banner.
I said at the outset that there was one issue on which Ukip might, however, find vacuum into which to expand. That issue is not Europe at all. It is immigration. ‘BNP in blazers’ was meant as a taunt, but I fear that the prospect would not be unwelcome to much of Britain. The challenge to our mainstream parties to find a non-racist voice which can discuss and respond to our national fear of overcrowding may be more urgent than they think. It is a voice which Ukip may shortly find. When the electorate speaks, isn’t ‘we must hold our nerve’ rather an insulting response from the political class?
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.